Most governments across the world have opted to close educational institutions temporarily to contain the COVID-10 pandemic spread. Such global closures have impacted about 70% of the students worldwide. Like many countries of the world, the government of Bangladesh adopted the strategy to close down all the educational institutions since the 18th of March in order to save students from getting infected with this deadly virus. A month ago, our Prime Minister while conducting a virtual meeting with the district administrators pointed out that the government may not consider reopening of educational institutions until September if the situation of COVID-19 infection does not improve significantly.
Meanwhile, the government has reopened all offices, industries and public transports since the 31st of May urging all involved actors to follow health regulations and social distance. Therefore, a question remains in the discussion when educational institutions will resume their teaching-learning activities. In the meantime, authorities of several universities have decided to open offices in a limited scale withholding all classes and examinations. The University Grants Commission (UGC) after issuing a directive instructing all public and private universities to abstain from opening any administrative and academic activities until 15th of June again shifted the responsibility on the shoulder of the university administration to take decisions in this regard. Therefore, guardians and students are in quandaries to think about their futures.Now a pertinent question is whether it would be prudent to open all educational institutions from now. The authorities must take into account several issues before they make a final decision. As we all are aware, the academic environment of all educational institutions in the country, from primary to university, follows the traditional classroom-based teaching method while teaching a large number of students in a single room. If the educational institutions resume their teaching-learning activities and if a single student carries COVOD-19 germs in a class, the entire class is likely to be infected within a few days, which can affect hundreds and thousands in a very short period of time. One worry is that there are hundreds of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients in the country. This would put students and teachers at risk of COVID-19 infection.
Meanwhile, many developed countries have started to reopen educational institutions with preventive measures ensuring social distance in classrooms and school campuses. They are measuring the body temperature of each of the students and providing hand sanitizer before entering the classes. Despite taking preventive measures they have failed to prevent the COVID-19 spread. For instance, 90 students were found positive with COVID-19 on the first day of reopening of primary school in France. This has prompted the authorities to rethink their decision of reopening schools.
Whether it would be possible to ensure such preventive measures in Bangladesh is a million dollar questions. If we consider the background of our parents, will they be able send their kids to the school with masks and hand sanitizers? Will the school authorities be able to maintain social distancing within the class, measure body temperature of the students after frequent intervals or provide hand sanitizers regularly and finally monitor social distancing outside the class activities? The possible answer is that we are not yet ready to adopt and implement these safety measures properly.
Another issue that requires the attention of the university authorities is whether they would be able to ensure social distancing and follow sanitation rules at students' residential halls. We all know that a large portion of students of public universities stays in residential halls in a congested manner. Three to four students usually stay in a small room. Those who stay in halls take their meals at hall canteens. Even the sanitation situation of these canteens is not up to the mark. Therefore, it is a million-dollar question whether it is the right time to think about opening the educational institutions putting several million students at risk of COVID-19 infection. If students continue to get infected, their family members will be infected who would, in turn, infect other members of the society. Therefore, when we all are talking about flattening the curve of the COVID-19 patients in the country, the decision to reopen educational institutions may push the graph to move upwards. We are still in an anxiety to forecast the COVID-19 situation after the movement of millions of people across the country before and after EID. Moreover, the decision to reopen all offices, industries and public transports may have a detrimental effect on the growth in the number of COVID-19 patients.
Of course, the government is in a quandary to think of the future of the students of the country. We all are aware of the postponement of examinations of the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) scheduled for April 1. This examination is closely linked to the commencement of university education as students apply for university admission after obtaining HSC degree. Therefore, if the result of HSC is not published the University admission process would come to a halt. This is something like a vicious circle. We all know that the Cambridge University has postponed their IGCSE, O level and A level examinations scheduled for May-June 2020. They have decided to award grades to students based on the previous examination grades, and grades they have attained at different school examinations, including coursework, assignment, mock examinations and so forth. The schools have been instructed to prepare predicted grades for each student based on their previous results with justification. It does not mean that whatever grades would be predicted by the schools would be awarded by Cambridge. After receiving predicted grades from the schools, Cambridge would make a statistical analysis of the predicted grades by using software.
It is well known that the implementation of such an arrangement is quite difficult in a country like Bangladesh for issues like professionalism, efficiency and trust of all teachers and administrations that would remain associated with this process. Therefore, we could still wait for a few more weeks to observe whether the curve in the graph flattens or not. If a positive trend is observed the government can organise HSC examinations ensuring social distancing as much as we could afford. Even a couple of months delay in the commencement of the university session would not affect the students to a great extent. If we could consider this matter, we would certainly be able to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the community level through the students who are the most vulnerable group in society.The government could think of giving promotion to the students in the next class where applicable through their previous results at the primary and secondary level. The students should not have any problem as they may still be able to appear at the final term examination to be held during the latter part of the year. At the same time, we could sensibly think about finding ways to introduce an online-based education system making it accessible to the majority of the students. A successful transformation from traditional to online education is a daunting task, as the costs associated with the process of staying connected with online teaching may affect a large group of students. The government has started online teaching for the primary and secondary level. But, a feasibility analysis is important to ascertain how beneficial it is for students and how much value this program brings to students.
It is quite natural that many among us would take a different stand against my proposition. But, we must have to consider the health security of students first before we make a final decision about reopening of educational institutions. Otherwise, we would have to face another catastrophe in the form of widespread infection among the students. It would create pain not only for the parents but also for the government. I firmly believe that our Prime Minister has rightly pointed out that the reopening of the educational institutions depends on the improvement of COVID-19 situation. There are some over-enthusiastic people who may try to influence the responsible authorities differently. We should not become swayed by them while making a decision on the issue of resuming academic activities at the educational institutions.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration and an Additional Director of the Institutional Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) at the University of Rajshahi.